At 8:45 last Friday morning, Kosta Harlan heard three knocks on the front door of his home and opened it to find two men on his porch.
“What’s going on?” Harlan said.
“We have some questions for you regarding a terrorism investigation,” the men, later identified as FBI Task Force Agents Jeffrey Bloesch and Robert Powell, reportedly asked.
“I have nothing to say to you without an attorney,” Harlan replied.
But the agents kept talking.
“They kept wanting to question me,” says Harlan, who, several days later, is still trying to make sense of the incident. “Eventually they left.”
As Harlan turned to go inside he says he noticed two other men standing near the garage. He cracked open the front door and asked the agents as they were leaving who the other men were.
“You don’t need to know that,” the agents reportedly replied.
That same day, FBI agents raided at least six homes or offices of anti-war and international solidarity activists in the U.S., primarily in Chicago and Minneapolis, although people in other states were questioned.
Nearly a dozen people received subpoenas to testify before a grand jury. According to a search warrant and subpoena posted on the Internet, the federal government seems to be trying to connect these activists to left-wing rebel groups, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which the U.S. State Department lists as “terrorist organizations.”
FBI agents also raided the home of Palestinian-American Hatem Abudayyeh, executive director of the Arab American Action Network based in Chicago, and an outspoken critic of U.S.-Israel policies.
Some of the activists belonged to Students for a Democratic Society and Colombian Action Network, of which Harlan is also a member. He was not subpoenaed nor searched.
The raids happened less than a month after the Justice Department’s inspector general issued a report criticizing the FBI’s tactics in surveiling anti-war groups. The report charged that in some instances, the FBI used “questionable investigative techniques” and improperly collected and retained First Amendment information” in its files. The report also charges that the FBI based its initial, low-level investigations on “factually weak” reasons and extended the length of the investigations “without sufficient basis.”
The report examined FBI activities from 2001-2006, but the inspector general noted that, “this report is relevant to current and prospective FBI investigations that may implicate First Amendment considerations.”
The FBI’s Charlotte Division did not return repeated calls for comment about Harlan’s case. The Charlotte Division oversees a Raleigh satellite office. The person who answered the phone at the Raleigh office referred all questions to the Charlotte Division.
It is unclear why the FBI is interested in Harlan. For the past year, he has scaled back his activism to care for a family member who has cancer. “Surely [the FBI] is aware of my family situation,” Harlan says. “I’ve done nothing that warrants the FBI showing up at my door.”
Even when Harlan was more involved in the anti-war and international solidarity movements, his activism was routine: Like Harlan, thousands of people have participated in anti-war demonstrations or protested at the gates of the School of Americas at Fort Benning, Ga.
And it’s common for activists to travel to other countries and meet with political groups. Harlan participated in a human rights delegation to Columbia, where he and other activists were the guests of a farmworkers’ union whose members, they say, have been killed by Colombian army and paramilitary forces.
Thousands of people like Harlan speak at demonstrations, while others write impassioned articles for blogs and publications. (Harlan’s work about Central America and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has appeared in the newspaper Fight Back!)
“I’ve never heard of a government that didn’t keep watch on their opposition,” says N.C. State University Assistant Professor Dick Reavis, who was a civil rights activist and SDS member in the 1960s. “The more threatening the opposition is, the more they spy on them. The surprising thing here is that the FBI would consider today’s anti-war movement worth spying on. It’s more of a mark of a paranoia by the government.”
Although Bloesch and Powell had finished talking with Harlan, law enforcement was not done monitoring him that day. The two men hanging around Harlan’s garage left in a silver pickup truck with tinted windows, but Harlan says the same truck passed his house a half-dozen times throughout the afternoon.
And when Harlan and a friend left his neighborhood to go downtown to consult with an attorney, the silver pickup truck was parked nearbythe same pickup truck, Harlan’s mother told him, that she had seen in the area several weeks earlier.
In fact, several incidents, which, at the time seemed random, now seemed to add up. Harlan had recently flown out west to a wedding, and three separate airlines singled him out for a more extensive search.
Shortly after Harlan hosted a public workshop last November about Colombiathe event was posted on Facebookthe social networking site notified him that the event had been flagged and threatened to delete his account. Harlan says other activists have reported similar problems with their Facebook accounts being deleted and then later restored.
The federal government apparently was watching Harlan even after he left his home on Friday. Later that day, Harlan met with a fellow activist at a downtown Durham coffeeshop to organize an upcoming press conference. Two to three hours after that meeting, the activist told Harlan, two men came to the activist’s home and identified themselves as being from “the government.” The men asked to speak with the activist, who refused.
“These guys may be rattled that the FBI showed up, but we don’t know who else was watching,” says Reavis, adding that private organizations have spied on people, then turned their files over to the government. “If you’re going to change the world you can’t worry about that stuffunless you’re doing something illegal, then you’d better be very careful.”
Harlan wonders if there is a connection between Friday’s incident and a March 2008 anti-war protest co-sponsored by Students for a Democratic Society at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Harlan was among the featured speakers and helped organize the protest. That day, the Indy reported at the time, a man wearing a shirt emblazoned with an Information Sharing and Analysis Center (ISAAC) insignia was photographing the demonstration. The Indy approached the man, who identified himself as being from ISAAC and acknowledged he was taking pictures. ISAAC is a state agency under the N.C. Attorney General’s office, whose goal, according to a community brochure, is to “reduce North Carolina’s vulnerability to terrorism and criminally motivated events.”
The N.C. Attorney General’s Office confirmed this week that the man, an N.C. State University police officer, is a member of ISAAC. However, a spokesperson for the AG’s office said the officer was not attending the protest in his ISAAC capacity but was “gathering information for N.C. State since the same group was scheduled to be on its campus the next day.”
The spokesperson said neither ISAAC nor the State Bureau of Investigation were involved in the FBI’s visit to Harlan.
Harlan says that he and his fellow activist plan to hold a public meeting next month about the raids. (See the website www.stopfbi.net for developments in the actvists’ cases.) “We’re shedding light on what the FBI is doing, denouncing it and demonstrating the unity of the community,” he says. “The fact that the FBI can do this is outrageous and unacceptable. People need to know about it.”